Movie Reviews

Siskel and Ebert and Roeper

In 1986 two Chicago based film critics (Siskel and Ebert) took their reviewing skills to the little screen (much littler then than now, although those CRT pigs weighed a lot more than today’s flat screens). So, this is the misty past. Universities were starting to get internet connectivity that year, but the WWW was but a gleam in CERN’s eye. Still, time does pass, and eventually Siskel succumbs to illness. Ebert carries on, and after a while he – or some management type, more likely – finds a new cohost, named Roeper, who is a younger more peevish version of Siskel. In 2001 they review The Lord of the Rings, part the first, subtitled, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Keep in mind, by this time I had read that book, and the others in the trilogy, more than 10 times (total to date: 13; once in German, and once aloud to some nephews), and not because I disliked them and had a monk’s need to punish myself for past sins. No, au contraire, I was, and am, a fan. Roeper was clearly not a fan, leaning more towards the likes of Claire’s Knee, I strongly suspect. And if his take on LoTR is any indication, it is clear he had never read any of Tolkien’s works. Indeed, it seems likely he had never heard of the trilogy, and dismissed the entire genre as insignificant twaddle.

So, the LoTR episode is in full swing, and they’re bantering back and forth. Ebert has said some positive things about this grandly epic film. And then Roeper chimes in, and he says at one point: “The characters are getting tedious after a while … they go on one adventure after another …”. From this I conclude that he also thought the Iliad and the Odyssey were tedious drivel. He continues: “… this hobbit character, who’s, you know, in this elfin world, or whatever, and he’s wide-eyed and …”. Yikes. Holy fuck. I mean, he’s not strictly speaking saying anything wrong in any of this. He makes semi coherent English sentences and phrases, but yikes. And yes, “this hobbit character” – that would be Frodo – does live in a world in which elves also live, or whatever; and sure, Frodo was born and raised in the Shire, so perhaps a tad naive, but … Roeper carries on like this, utterly and entirely dismissing the film for its great sin of not pertaining to Claire’s knee, but instead continually introducing places and creatures that do not exist, and are evidently unimaginable (I mean, what next? A cyclops whose eye was put out by Noman?). And then, oh, crap, in summarizing the story he talks about “this silly little ring”, which everyone seems so preoccupied with for some bizarre reason.

Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for mortal men doomed to die,
One silly little ring for the Dark Lord on his dark throne;
In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.

One silly little ring to rule them all, one silly little ring to find them,
One silly little ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them;
In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.

Well, I must confess, had the book and the movie used this modified description, I would have found it entertaining, but in being less ominous, I’d likely have stopped at 3 or 4 reads of the epic. Perhaps Roeper’s view was warped by Wagner’s opera, Der Silly Little Ring des Nibelungen. Or the Norse saga upon which it was based. Sigh. Still, Roeper by this point had given every sign that not only had he never read the books, but really seemed never to have heard of them. And it became clear at the end of his goofy tirade that he may not have known it was a “them” – that there was more than one book. Did he even know the film was based on a book?

So, yeah, finally, Roeper completely astonished me – and Ebert, who was getting more and more concerned for his cohost, who seemed to be foaming at the mouth – by complaining that the ending of the film left it so obviously wide open for a sequel to appear at some future date, draining the wallets of fans for this film number 2. At that point, in my original viewing in 2001, my jaw hit the floor. Did he just say that? WTF!?!?!? And an idea started growing in my younger – but not really young – brain: No one should be allowed to review any work of art if they have no interest in the genre, and may even disdain it.

By the way, Ebert – embarrassed for his cohost, and always the most cogent and insightful of all the critics who ever appeared on the show – did his best to help Roeper out of the hole of ignorance he’d dug for himself. He succeeded to some extent.

Alas, eventually Ebert also succumbed to illness, and the show was taken over by younger, less cogent and insightful critics. But without Ebert it was destined to fail, and although I continued to watch, albeit less regularly, I remember nothing about this later incarnation other than a general sense of annoyance.

That Reminds Me

Hollywood, like mainstream theoretical physics, is intent on diminishing the influence of any work outside their narrow purview. In the case of theoretical physics, this involves limiting exposure of the works of people like me, by keeping such works out of the arXiv, and when that is impossible, relegating the works to gen-ph, a kind of trash heap set aside for papers with which the mainstream is displeased, but can’t outright banish, because they have been published.

Hollywood doesn’t have an arXiv, but it does have film critics, and it rules them with an iron fist, if they are American, and if they want to maintain cordial relations with the mother ship. This manifests itself in generally awful reviews of good foreign films by American reviewers – especially science fiction blockbusters (Hollywood is less afraid of Clair’s Knee, for such films have a limited audience that Hollywood considers irrelevant), and a sure indication of such meddling can be found in the Rotten Tomatoes favorability numbers, which will look something like this: Critics – 22%; Viewers – 95%. Numbers like these, pertaining to foreign films, should be ignored, except for the Viewers score. (Example: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. 82% of google users liked it; Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 47%.) Ignore American reviews; see the film.

What else is going on?

Nothing, really. 2021 has been blissfully free of catastrophes and drama. The pandemic is at an end; climate change has stopped changing the climate; the peoples of the world are content with nearly everything, and they have promised to stop overpopulating your planet (not my planet – I want no part of this one – it’s a fucking nightmare); and bunnies and unicorns …

You know …

It isn’t really that mainstream theoretical physicists have formed a secret cabal to exclude everything that does not discuss, exploit, or promote QFT. It’s just that this is what they’re trained to do; they’re mostly goobers and nerds (I have some nerd-cred myself), and they like rubbing elbows at conferences while discussing familiar topics (my problem has always been that I like rubbing elbows at conferences while discussing unfamiliar topics). It’s all very comfortable, until someone outside the circle points out the lack of progress over the last 20 to 40 years in advancing our understanding of the universe. At that point they bring up the successes of QED, quarks, and quantum entanglement. If need be, more senior members may be called upon to address the outside world with stern and confident gravitas. This kind of thing still works in allaying the fears of those who suspect the theorists may not have a clue. For the time being, at least. But it’s really not a cabal. One hears talk of deep states nowadays, but really, quelle surprise. Deep states are inevitable, and they form organically, but … ooh, that’s a pretty cloud.

2021, the year that …

Bunnies and Unicorns

For this blog I’d originally written a series of global improvements that would come about in 2021, suggesting that many of the planet’s ills – like the incarceration or sentencing to death of rebellious people in doctrinaire nations; like slavery (at least 20 million people throughout the world presently enslaved); and drugs, the bad kind, that companies and cartels … well, you get the idea. Anyway, these various chunks of badness, and many more, would go away when the perpetrators would, in this new year, so full of hope, join hands around the world with bunnies and unicorns. However, I doubt I need to spell out how unlikely this is. I mean, unicorns are notoriously antisocial, and they don’t have hands. As to bunnies … let’s not go there.

Alas. My wife thought my original repetitive list was annoying. She reminded me how much I dislike lists that employ repetitive verbiage. Good point. I felt uncomfortable with what I’d written and discarded it, but I did have one hope for the new year that pertained to physics. It was this:

“Mainstream theoretical physicists, who have spent decades using their power and influence to suppress contrary ideas, and to ceaselessly promulgate the notion that facility with analytical (QFT, ST, …) and geometric (GR, ST, …) tools is the righteous and sole path to truth, under the bizarre impression that having tools, and knowing how to use them, makes you an architect with a profound understanding of design … 2021 finds them repenting and joining hands around the world with bunnies and unicorns.” So, yeah, sarcasm.

Let me just add a brief postscript to that, and then I’ll move on. In the sanctified popular science media it is occasionally admitted that theoretical physics has dug itself into a very deep hole over the last few decades. One encounters occasional mutterings from theorists themselves that what is needed are well-connected young geniuses to come along and bring us into the light … in some ill-defined future. In almost every instance it is supposed, assumed, hoped, that these young turks, having come up through the sanctified ranks, will carry on using the tools beloved by those who failed, viz., shovels.

Never once is it suggested that young turks, working outside the consecrated mainstream, may already have developed ideas that could lead the hidebound into a brighter future, and that they may have done so years ago – decades, even. The very suggestion that there may – could, at least theoretically – exist a potential evanescent future that has been assiduously disregarded in favor of a comfortably crusty past is beyond anathema (to be clear, it is the suggestion, should it be made – and it is being made; please keep up – that is beyond anathema; lots of nouns in that sentence). Anyway, I’m blushing now, so let’s stop here. Don’t want to annoy my wife.

And speaking of books …

In 1965, I think, I first encountered The Lord of the Rings trilogy at a bookstore in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I read the trilogy so often in the 2 or so decades thereafter that I was able eventually to read it in German, despite having only two college years of the language. But I knew enough of it, and more than enough of the books, to be able to follow the story easily in this foreign tongue.

In more recent years, my wife and I came to understand that our travels overseas needn’t be as broad and expansive as once they were, and we zeroed in on a very limited number of nations and places that gave us joy. As a consequence, she began to study Italian, and I French. Recalling how helpful LotR was in helping me improve my German, I recently ordered all three of the books of LotR, and The Hobbit, in French. I have begun with The Hobbit, and although French is less logical than German, and much harder to understand, still I am enjoying the experience. Bilbo Bessac (not Baggins – although sac means bag, so …) has just listened to the dwarves sing their haunting song about far away misty mountains, but he has not yet come to understand how pointed all these shenanigans are, and that he is expected to visit said mountains, despite having indicated to Gandalf that he has no interest in adventures.

Eventually Bilbo will go on adventures, but, like my wife and I, in the fullness of time he will come to feel he has had enough of the broadening influence of travel, and he will settle in Paris … er, I mean, Rivendell.

Gonads, or why there is no cure

Few of us are actually individuals, so how can we be judged as such? We are cyborgs … no, replicants … no, that’s not right either. Gundams! That’s what we are. And the pilots do not drive us from our heads, but from our gonads. In the midst of fierce battle, with the life of the male Gundam in jeopardy, if the gonad pilots get kicked they cause the Gundam host to topple over and curl up into a ball – a ball intended to protect the gonad pilots. The Gundam itself becomes immediately of secondary importance, for it is only a vehicle intended to aid the pilots in achieving their ultimate goal, a kind of immortality. The pilots are amoral, and they don’t believe in unicorns, so there will always be Gundams willing to suck the life out of other Gundams at the behest of their gonad pilots. Avoid them, if you can. It will be easier to do so once the life-sucking Gundams are isolated in Antarctica, which is the plan. Or on Mars. Mars would be best, as on Mars they would be less able to get up to mischief.

Has it really been 700 years?

“No one will listen,” says old guy

Hamster + Wheel

Having determined I was not rabidly partisan, the old guy – perhaps a bit older than myself – complained with more than a tinge of regret that no one would listen to his concerns about the state of the nation. I got the impression that lecturing his descendants had proven frustratingly and markedly lacking in efficacy. I cautiously suggested that the young people who had turned their deaf ears to him … well, it’s their world now, sort of. Still lots of elders in control of lots of stuff, but at least culturally the world belongs to the inheritors, so bemoaning the fading mores of yesteryear will change nothing. Well, that’s a bit strong perhaps. Let’s just say that there are no precedents, so the odds are slim to none.

The old guy craved a return to a world that he understood, but a world I strongly suspect only ever existed in verisimilitude. Still, were his perfect world spread out before me I rather think I’d find it attractive in many respects. But really, I’d prefer Paris in the 1920s: Paris, the Luminous Years. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, as I’ve said before, and elsewhere, was an interesting depiction, but a character in it craved an even earlier time: La Belle Epoque. The main character suggested that such nostalgic cravings are natural, but they are will o’ the wisps, for the benefits attached to one age over another are illusory. Well, but you know, not always. I don’t crave America in the 1950s, nor much of anywhere in the world during the Great Depression (exception below).

The world I am gradually leaving has become uncomfortably factional, to the point that factions on the extremes wish extreme violence on factions on the opposite extremes, this involving – preferably – death. I was in college during a time of equal or greater factionalism, albeit more focused, I would say. I was the same age as those who died in the Kent State shootings. That sort of thing was less satisfying to the perpetrators than you’re maybe thinking, whichever extreme you favor.

Still, that event does not stand alone. The violent suppression of dissent is a time honored tradition throughout the world, and all of its history. Kent State is about as big an event on that list as is the murder hornet scare on the list of 2020 horrors. But, you know, crowds will go mad; and I will continue to resist going mad with them. I did that a little bit in the 1960s. Neither sorry nor proud.

Out of the line of fire in books

Speaking of yearning for other places in other times, I recently read a perfectly wonderful book: Harry’s Bar: The Life and Times of the Legendary Venice Landmark, by Arrigo Cipriani. I suppose I wouldn’t recommend it to the majority of millennials and Zs, for they will not understand why they are not the book’s focus, nor why this memoir has so many eccentric characters that are not excoriated for their lack of adhesion to modern doctrinaire …

Ooh, careful, Geoffrey. Careful. Put the old guy curmudgeon back in its box. Back away … slowly …

So, anyway, for those whose tastes are even remotely like mine, I recommend it. On the Cipriani website it has this to say:

“On May 13, 1931, Giuseppe Cipriani Senior opened Harry’s Bar in Venice. Over the years, Harry’s Bar became the place where writers, painters, artists, aristocrats, kings and queens would meet. Among them there were: Barbara Hutton, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Giancarlo Menotti, Peggy Guggenheim, Orson Welles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Joe di Maggio, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. The keys to the success of this tiny Bar were: service, freedom and lack of imposition.”

In particular, “freedom and lack of imposition”. That is, not woke. The book is hilarious, for its cast of characters includes delusional faded aristocrats, along with all the others of greater or lesser celebrity. The manner in which they all fit into this tolerant and forbearing milieu is a wonder to read, and occasionally very Fellini-esque, with the distinction that the story told in Harry’s Bar is true. It’s not Paris in the 1920s, but I’d be happy to be transported to Harry’s Bar in, say, 1932 or so.

Realistically

But this is not possible. All these moments are “lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Well, maybe not time to die just yet. 2020 has been so bad in so many ways, but although it kept SWMBO and I home, foregoing our yearly trip to the EU, and it presented me with the uncomfortable knowledge that I had a brand of stage 4 cancer, in keeping us home, it also kept us close to MGH, where I initiated a connection with a couple of excellent doctors. Quick action, and efficacious (so far) treatment, has given me hope for future trip(s) to the EU. I won’t be able to put in the miles of walking I did previously, but my favorite memory is of sitting in a cafe on Rue Cler in Paris. The sun was out, we had a table outside next to the rue, and before us was a parade of locals walking their little boofie dogfaced beasties (my term for animals of the canine persuasion, for they are beasties, they have dog faces, and they go boof, on occasion). Anyway, that hour or so we spent there was bliss, involving not only a Paris cafe, but dogs – adorable ones. Such experiences will have to do until we figure out how to transport me back in time to ….

You know, never mind that. I’ll take Paris, sun, cafe, and fluff ball parade over that other stuff. Still, Harry’s Bar does sound attractive.

Where’s the science?

I intentionally left out the science this time, but recently I got an email request – from someone who is more highly regarded in the world of theoretical physics than myself – wanting my thoughts on why there are 3 generations of lepton/quark families. I responded:

So, 3 generations. I outlined my suggestion in my 2004 JMP paper. Basically anywhere the number 3 pops up in any mathematics that has been connected to physics there is an enthusiastic collection of supporters touting that 3 as THE 3. Triality; Exceptional Jordan algebra; E₈ (ahem); Cohl’s Clifford algebra thing; …

Anyhum, I’ll go to my grave in 3+ years still quietly repeating my mantra about resonant mathematics, and in particular the two finite resonant sequences: 1,2,4,8; 1,2,8,24. The first is connected to the parallelizable spheres and the division algebras; the second to lattice theory (a la my last publication in AACA). In my 2004 paper I used this second sequence to simultaneously explain why I couldn’t use just T, but needed T²; and to explain why we seem to have 3 generations. In particular, the starting point shouldn’t be:

T = CHO

It should be

T⁶ = C¹ ⊗ H² ⊗ O³.

This is a hybrid spinor space for which we presently do not have concomitant mathematical tools … as far as I know.  

Anyway, this thrills me because it involves both 2,4,8 and 2,8,24.  It is much harder to think about than triality, Jordan algebras, big groups, or Clifford algebras, all of which are comfortable notions with long histories … too long.  

In my view, the nice thing about T⁶ is you don’t have to tack on spinors later. It is a spinor, incorporating 3 families of Dirac spinors, and their antifamilies, and all the groups fall out of the maths. But, as I made clear in 2004, we do not presently have the mathematical architecture or tools to make this a full fledged meaty model. It is skeletal.

But, like a lot of people now, I believe particle physics is at a minimum in a very deep coma, and I’m far from convinced that blather about black holes, dark mattergy, and 40 year old debates about the meaning of QM, are likely to end the coma. And I’m very ignorant in very many ways, but AdS/CFT? Is it not known that our universe is deSitter? But again, AdS is evidently so much easier to deal with mathematically, so …

T⁶ hasn’t got a prayer.

Paradigms Lost

Squirrel!

Every so often theoretical physics (TP) is visited by an idea that shakes its tail on a tree branch and causes a majority of TPers in that field to rush to the tree and yap excitedly at its base.

Bad dog! Heel!

So, yeah, great title, and great first sentence, but this is ground that I’ve covered in this blog – repeatedly. Indeed, it is ground upon which I first trod in my publications some 40 years ago. My original thought, for this blog installment, after deciding on that excellent title, Paradigms Lost, was to softly chide the pack of people known as theoretical physicists for chasing wildly after each and every brilliant new idea as though more of the same will surely lead to … to … to more good stuff. But chiding, whether soft or hard, has never, and will never, achieve its desired intent. You can’t stop a runaway locomotive with a stick.

My repetitive behavior reminds me of Joey in the movie Hackers.

• 00:43:51 Hi, my name’s Vicki and I’m an addict.
• 00:43:55 Hi. My name’s Hank and I’m an addict.
• 00:44:00 My name’s Joey, but…
• 00:44:03 I’m not an addict.
• 00:44:05 No, really. Listen.
• 00:44:06 I got in trouble with my computer.
• 00:44:08 My lawyer told the judge I’m an addict, but I’m not addicted to my computer.
• 00:44:12 No, really.
• 00:44:14 I’m not an addict.
• 00:44:15 I’m not.
• 00:44:18 Can I get some more coffee?

Grandpa’s here! Hide!

However, it’s about more than simple addiction; it’s also about aging. In principle growing old is not bad, although it will require help from a plethora of medical professionals for me to go very much further down this track. But getting older is not all cupcakes and buttercups. Well, it can be, if everyday you decide that today would be a great day to introduce cupcakes and buttercups into your life, largely forgetting that you did that same thing the day before, and the day before that. Not that cupcakes and buttercups are bad, per se, as an idée fixe – one could do worse – but one’s thoughts do tend to drift into repetition, as originality fades. I can see myself (d)evolving into that embarrassing grandparent who exhorts his grandchildren at each family gathering to pull his finger. Not that flatulence isn’t an eternally excellent source of humor; it is. And not that I actually have grandchildren; I don’t. I’ve consulted medical texts and it seems that a prerequisite for having grandchildren is to first have children. I have none of those either. But I digress; or do I?

You know, in 2014 my Seeable Matter; Unseeable Antimatter paper was published, in which it was demonstrated that division algebra mathematics, a la G M Dixon, implies that our universe is dominated by matter because antimatter has its own 4-d universe, and the two are linked by blah blah blah. But recently Researchgate notified me that a paper I published in 1989 (nine years after Quanta Magazine suggested I had given up on theoretical physics entirely) had reached 200 reads. A modest achievement, admittedly, but it prompted me to look at that paper. And what should I discover but that 31 years ago, at a minimum, and 25 years before my 2014 paper, I was already pointing out that … that … you know; what I said above. And although the 2014 paper is easily the most mathematically clean, still, I think I’d like to make a radical change and have cupcakes and buttercups today.

The cure

So, here I am bemoaning the repetitive nature of my blogging, and my life, and simultaneously … have I bemoaned the repetitive nature of my blogging in previous blogs? I think I have! Old published ideas tend to sink beneath the ocean of consciousness, then bubble up from the depths at some later time in the guise of originality.

The cure, as I see it, and have seen it, is to cease dwelling on the shortcomings inherent in the practice of theoretical physics, and to spend more time immersing myself, and both of my readers, in discussions of matters outside of science altogether. I see I’ve already done Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Girls’ Last Tour … must-resist-desire-to-discuss-them-again … resistance is exhausting. I could do Paris; or flatulence; but I recently did a combination of Paris and flatulence, so that’s out. Think. Think!

I’ll get back to you. Not like I have any choice in the matter; writing has always been a compulsion of mine. I mean, after retiring I wrote five books. I’d have written more, but blogging … so much more immediate … and the past such a rich source of material.

Get off my lawn, ye young skallywags; and you too, ye blighted whippersnappers.

Hebetude

Sere

Here is a definition of “hebetude”: “The absence of mental alertness or physical sensitivity.” Next on the list is “hebetate”: “To blunt the sensitivity or keenness of.”

Let me explain. Decades ago, when giant beasts both strange and perilous roamed the earth, I began to collect words encountered while reading that I felt less than comfortable using in my own writing. I wrote these words down, along with definitions, in a notebook I dubbed Dixonary. I first encountered the word “hebetude” in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a series of fantasy books. The author, Stephen R. Donaldson, was fond of sprinkling his prose with little used words, and I kept a dictionary at hand when reading these books.

So, yes, “hebetude” made it into the Dixonary, and as “hebetate” was nearby, it made it in too. Let’s use it in a sentence.

“The neutral and negative results of the LHC hebetated researches into theoretical particle physics worldwide, leading to a retrenchment of the field, but as custom reconciles us to everything, its practitioners have circled their wagons around stale – but beloved – ideas proven over the past 40 years to be ineffectual, but oh so comfortable.”

That was fun. In fact, however, I have never encountered the word “hebetate” in any of my reading, and even as I write it on my iPad, because it is unrecognized, it gets the dotted red underlining of death. Curiously, “hebetude” is recognized, and I actually did encounter it once. And only once.

In all the decades since, as the great reptiles slowly died out, I have never lost the feeling that if a word is encountered that rarely – once, or never – does that word lose legitimacy? I personally – despite their inclusion in my Dixonary – have always avoided the use of these words in my own writing, feeling certain that the vast majority of my readers would be as befuddled as I once was. (And now I’m wondering if the phrase “vast majority” is applicable if the number to which the phrase is being applied is ten or fewer.)

Eventually, because of my addiction to P.G. Wodehouse, I started adding meta-content to the Dixonary, viz., phrases. For example, let’s use a few:

“Theoretical particle physicists have been cut off from the exercise of making meaningful advances to their field because they labor under the misapprehension that old ways of thinking, shown to be inadequate, are preferable to giving rein to idle speculation that could imperil the cordial relations existing between mainstream theorists and the practitioners of science media.”

Anyway, it would be idle to deny that sharing my jaundiced view of theoretical physics could be hazardous. One doesn’t usually associate STEM folk with danger, but I recently read that a German mathematician was arrested for murder and cannibalism, than which nothing could be more calculated to give one the heebie jeebies. Deliquescence is preferable to ending up in a shallow grave with all my meaty bits gone into a mainstream stew.

Seminal

Meanwhile, outside the mainstream, speculation continues to run rampant. L. Motl himself, as a kind of left handed compliment, suggested that Tony Smith and myself are (well, Tony has passed, and I have a medical death sentence, so maybe “were” is the mot juste) the archetypes for all modern day “crackpots”, of which there are many. However, although my work is founded on highly developed and unassailable pure mathematics, which is then interpreted as a fully fledged foundation for the Standard Model (unavoidably so), providing explanations for a multitude of puzzling aspects … sniff. I need a tissue. Where was I? Oh, yes, without exception, although my work is frequently cited (sort of), in not one instance does the work doing the citing build upon my work. Nay, my work is used as an excuse for the author’s own speculative ideas. You know, Gürsey and Günaydin used the octonion algebra mathematics as a way of explaining color SU(3). I cited them many times, and I built upon their results, at least those that did not try to connect to quantum theory. It never occurred to me to cite them, then ignore them, and carry on as though their seminal work was irrelevant, save as an excuse for me to do something similar. Sigh. So, yeah, Motl was right.

Curiously, the first six words in the Dixonary (which I just yesterday dug out of a musty pile of old creations) are: Abnegate; Abjure; Abeyance; Acrimony; Adumbrate; and Aegis. All rather fitting, n’est ce pas? The seventh word is Accolade, but the universe has stopped at number six. Further down the list is Apotheosis. Ooh, I like that one. Let’s do that!

Manga: read right to left.

Tu es le petit déjeuner de ma vie

After I retired, SWMBO (who is sometimes referred to by the pseudonym, Franscesca) and I spent several weeks each spring in Europe, each time lavishing Paris with our resplendent presence. I wrote several proleptically bestselling books during this time, the first of which covered my peripatetic years of being a young theoretical physicist on the go. The underlying theme of that tome was the statistically implausible frequency with which my travels were met by near disasters. Maybe this was just Nature’s way of punishing me for my highly efficacious theoretical effrontery. Nature has always seemed content with the dithering investigations of mainstream theorists into the arcana of strings, loops, it-from-qubit, and amplitudeology. These folks were never punished with floods, illness, terrorism, earthquakes, … the list goes on. No, Nature’s wrath was reserved for me, for I had actually uncovered one of her secrets. Bad Geoffrey! Bad!

Ok, settle down ego. So, anyway, I wrote two subsequent travelogues, each of which continued this theme of disasters narrowly avoided. The first is entitled, Paris: je dirais même plus, and it covers our first post retirement trip to Europe in 2016. This was the year that Paris, and much of the rest of Europe, flooded. I’d like to share a section of that book, and perhaps, in so doing, dispel any notion you may have that my character is entirely frivolous. Herewith, …

The Fart that Ate Paris

In extenuation I must explain that I did not know they were there. I’m not proud of what happened, and for a little while after I felt shame, but I got over it. Also, I’d been sick, and would continue to be sick for weeks.

Ok, so we set the scene: Franscesca and I are walking, more than flâner, but less than rushing to a destination. I feel a pressure build up in my abdomen as we walk up the incline of some street. I am almost positive I gave a quick look around making sure no one was in earshot of what I was about to deliver, and I had a feeling earshot in this case was going to be rather extensive. Satisfied that the coast was clear, I let loose.

So, as you have doubtless conjectured by now, someone was within earshot – someone other than my forgiving wife, Francesca. Where the hell did they come from? How did they get just behind us? Was this some sort of stealthy French ninja thing? Were they planning on picking our pockets? Why did I not even know they were there until Francesca informed me, and described their reaction to my gaucherie?

This is her description: the man stopped in his tracks, his arms came forward, and he bent over a bit, as though he’d just been gut shot by a sniper. The woman grabbed him and pulled him quickly across the street, giving Francesca a look that mingled unforgiving bile with wonder that she, Francesca, could spend any amount of time with this unmitigated boor – i.e., me. Well, I sometimes wonder that too, but so far so good.

When informed I’d just ruined a portion of the lives of two presumably innocent Parisians I felt contrite. After some time, as is my wont, I sought to mitigate my chagrin by finding some way of thinking about my behavior that would lessen my guilt, and put some of it on the Parisian couple. And so I thought back to a scene from Paris: The Luminous Years, describing the initial reaction of many Parisians to their first viewing of cubist art. A primitive cartoon illustrated this reaction, showing a chubby man walking past cubist paintings, getting more and more distressed with each canvas, so that when he reached the window at the end of the exhibit his only recourse was to jump through it to his death, thereby ending his misery. And in this way I turned my fart into a work of art, and the reaction of the people behind us into an example of hidebound criticism of my avant-garde masterpiece, unappreciated in its time, but surely leading to posthumous glory in some future decade. Meanwhile I am and shall remain a solitary unrecognized genius whose vision will shape a future I shall never see.

Cutting Edge and Exile

In an effort to maintain their reputations, and the concomitant privileges pertaining to same, some of those with any standing in the community of theoretical physics are surrendering their grasp on failed ideas, and jumping to the cutting edge with the embrace of decades old ideas (eg., Twistors; Schwinger’s stuff; …) founded by senescent – at best – eminences. Despite the reverence in which the founders of such ideas are held, the most important aspect of the ideas themselves is that they have languished; they never died, but neither did they ever catch fire, so insufficient attention has been paid to them over the decades to warrant finding irremediably fatal flaws, if such flaws exist. This makes them excellent intellectual hidey holes in which to sequester oneself during these End Days. Sigh. Heavy sigh. (As mentioned previously, most fugitive theorists have latched onto black holes and dark mattergy.)

Clearly I am bemoaning the deep backwater to which my own ideas have been relegated, but then, I am not an eminence. Nor do I display gravitas in my dealings with my fellow humans, so normal humans – those at all interested in theoretical physics, and who are even vaguely aware of me and my notions – find it difficult to imbue either me or my notions with any respect, so …

But my time is limited, so I am told, and I shall be denied senescence. Maybe that’s for the best. No one wants to witness me plum deeper into the depths of curmudgeonliness were I to grow too old, so let’s talk about something else. In particular, let’s talk about the Arts, paying close attention to those bits that I’ve found most enjoyable.

Although not as confirmed a reader as Tony Smith (see eulogy here), because I go out and play more than Tony ever did, or even wished to, I have read a fair bit in my life – although, as will become clear, much of my reading was in no way intended to advance my critical thinking, or to deepen my philosophical outlook, or even to help me be a better physicist. Much of it was frivolous, but – as I lack gravitas – this is to be expected.

Anyway, many moons ago a sister-in-law of mine, aware that I did read a fair bit, commented on that, and she asked the following question: “How many books have you read in your life? 50?”

To her 50 was a borderline inconceivably large number of books to have read in one lifetime. I did not tell her that I owned more than 70 books by a single author, many of which I’d read multiple times. But I did store this question in my hard drive. It made me aware of something to which I had hitherto given little thought: most people will read very few books in their lifetimes; some will read none. They may lead very contented lives, full and successful, but without books. It reminds me of a very funny refrigerator magnet I once saw. It depicted a young woman’s face, smiling whimsically, and thinking: “And yet another day I’ve gone without using calculus.”

So, if you haven’t guessed already, those 70 plus books were authored by P.G. Wodehouse. Were I to be exiled on the island of Elba, and told I could have the books of only a single author for all my years there, I would choose Wodehouse. This, even though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any. What’s important is choosing an author whose oeuvre is extensive, and whose books have already proven themselves worthy of repeated readings. Yes, I acknowledge that many serious thinkers consider his works frivolous, his stories contrived, their endings unrealistically contented, but all of that pleases my mildly autistic brain. However, the real reason for choosing Wodehouse is the language, the turns of phrase that leave one – if that one is me – basking blissfully in their linguistic refulgence. And it doesn’t hurt that all this brilliance illuminates goofy plots about goofy characters in a world free of cartels, serious thinkers, terrorists, and intellectual ossification. Replace each of those things with smiles, and you get the idea.

Meanwhile, the powers that exiled me on Elba were kind enough to give me a large screen TV and a DVD/Blu-ray player, but again, being of the persnickety punitive persuasion, they restrict me to discs associated with a single studio. Without hesitation I choose Ghibli. I mean, how many times can I watch Hulk smash, whereas Ghibli animations are transformative, transporting, and some other “t” word, meaning magical, to complete the alliteration. And unlike the majority of American films, Ghibli characters are not sharply divided into good and evil. Instead there is an ever fluctuating spectrum of behaviors manifesting self interest at times, and altruism at others, with occasional dollops of cynicism. The artwork and stories make me feel happy. Being myself concertedly non serious, that feeling pleases me. (Not that the stories aren’t at times very serious; the most serious of them all I have yet to view, and I shall likely never view it, for I am informed that in depicting humanity at its worst, it makes one feel the opposite of happy and contented. I refuse to spend my exile on Elba wallowing in humanity at its worst. Just leave me in peace.)

Art and music are more problematic. I’m quite fond of Cézanne, so I’d choose his works, but not with the same conviction as my literary and film choices. As to music, my tastes vary so rapidly that I’d simply ask for a guitar or piano instead, and failing that, I’d choose to sing or hum whatever struck my fancy. I’ve written a two chord piece of music for guitar that resonates so profoundly with my brain that I cannot conceive of it being bettered. When it comes to music, I am easily pleased, and just as easily annoyed. Best to leave me to my own devices.

I’ve been to Elba, by the way. It’s a pleasant place to be exiled. And I promise not to escape and attempt to be emperor. The responsibility of that would be just too much.

Battening down the hatches

“Never let anyone drive you crazy; it is nearby anyway and the walk is good for you.”

So, I’ve had an inspiration – nay, an epiphany. A revelation. Based on the weekly Boston area physics colloquia calendar – which includes Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts, Brandeis … you know, a nontrivial and likely representative collection of first tier institutions – it is evident that theoretical particle physics is dead. Billions of dollars and euros and yuan and yen were spent on machinery intended to keep it alive, but the machinery failed to do so. Indeed, it hastened its demise. But that’s not the revelation. I’ve already covered the demise of particle physics.

Let’s recap. Big machines, intended to throw light on particle physics, as defined and envisioned by the mainstream, did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, the machines threw shade on their hopes and aspirations, a shade so deep that mainstream theorists wandered around quite blindly for a time, and then the survival instinct kicked in, and they rearranged their thinking. A lesson had been learned.

The lesson, sadly (here’s the revelation), is that evidence, if neutral or negative, is a bad thing, and given our inability to predict how evidence may turn out, we should migrate our intellectual efforts to areas that are largely immune to the vagaries of evidence, like black holes, dark matter, dark energy, and just about anything that involves the word “quantum” (even better if it also includes the word “interpretation”). That is safe ground indeed, and no amount of currency is likely sufficient to produce enough clear evidence to render these memes incontrovertibly pointless. Seven out of ten of the Boston area colloquia of this recent week were devoted to topics of this sort. The other three, by people resisting the poseur drift, were hard science topics that have half a chance or more of proving impactful some day.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Concurrently, Nobel Prizes in physics are being strewn about, like garlands at a druidical rite, to work on black holes, thereby highlighting the notion that this research area is a safe harbor where one can wait out the experimental storm that sank the good ship Particle Physics, which roved too far out to sea in search of treasure (Nobel doubloons).

The theoretical black hole Nobel was awarded to 89 year old Roger Penrose for his Singularity Theorem. (And 87 year old Steven Weinberg also recently got a prize … ok, we’re all thinking the same thing, but let’s just not go there; it is what it is. I’m doomed never to even reach 80, so all the numerous prizes waiting in the wings for me will be awarded posthumously.) Singularities, like probabilities outside of the range 0 to 1, are mathematical hints that you’re doing something wrong. Penrose’s theorem, it would seem, proves that. Still, in the absence of a valid quantum theory of gravity with which to dispel geometric infinities, singularities are a juicy way for theoretical prima donnas to get those in control of the klieg lights to turn their brilliant illumination in their direction. Say cheese!

This reminds me. You know Hell? You know, it’s where you get dumped if you’ve been really really naughty during your life. Well, I now know what Hell is. It’s being locked in a room with two 10 year olds listening to them debate what happens when the unstoppable object runs into the immovable object … for all of eternity. Remind you of 2020 trends in theoretical physics? Huh? Does it?

But never mind all that. An academic helper of SWMBO recently confessed to her that – although he is as confirmed a Trekkie as you’re likely to encounter anywhere – if he had to spend the rest of his life rewatching just two TV series, he’d choose the superb animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Firefly, a series that was cancelled, but seamlessly concluded with the film Serenity. This young man is wise beyond his years. This is a brilliant choice. I say this with complete confidence, for I have already spent many contented hours watching and rewatching both, and will likely sneak in a few more viewings before I depart. At present, however, I am (re)working through the Ghibli catalogue – a safe harbor for a troubled mind.

I see dead physics

Pop physics stories on Flipboard have recently been dominated by conjectural fluff about black holes, wormholes, time travel, and finding planets in other galaxies. Consider that last one. Why is that a thing? Why wouldn’t there be planets in other galaxies? The probability that some nearby galaxy should lack planets is 0. The probability that there are scads of them is 1. The probability that one of those planets should be habitable is closer to 1 than 0. Should we discover that one is more than habitable, maybe even paradisiacal, the probability that we should ever be able to travel there and make it non paradisiacal, maybe even uninhabitable, is 0. Not that we couldn’t easily destroy its ecosystem; we just will never have the technology to make the trip. We will never have the technology to send humans to other stars in our own galaxy – or to wormholes, should these highly conjectural figments even exist, and even if in entering one you wouldn’t be crushed … So, no, we don’t live in a universe in which any sci fi plot device is possible, requiring only a little funding and effort. Looking for planets in other galaxies is like looking for sand on a beach. Take a plastic shovel and a bucket, et voilà.

Anyway, one thing I almost never see in pop physics stories anymore is any mention of high energy physics (HEP), and elementary particles. The vast majority of exceptions to this dearth are paeans of praise for the plethora of physics advances to which the 20th century gave birth. These stories extoll the virtues of the likes of Feynman, Dirac, and Heisenberg, virtually patting humanity on the back for the intellectual achievements of this ilk, while ignoring the what-have-you-done-lately meme. The science to which I devoted most of my research life is not dead, but certainly comatose. Well, it might be dead.

And speaking of the 20th century, 87 year old S Weinberg recently won a 3 million dollar Breakthrough Prize. Not that he doesn’t deserve prizes, but his breakthroughs occurred half a century ago. Although I may not live long enough to see it, when all the Standard Model Nobelists are gone, to whom will such prizes be given?

Arguably the last glory decade for HEP was the 1970s, and those involved in making it glorious are now more likely to appear in obituaries than in arxiv. Four ensuing decades of work on creating a viable theory of quantum gravity produced lots of interesting mathematics, but by and large fizzled as regards physics and reality. Wide-eyed youths who surrendered to the clarion call of this effort became lost in a swamp, and its viscous bogginess only relatively recently became apparent. They still dot the arxiv with matters supersymmetric, or stringy, especially as regards how these faded glories relate to black holes – but now far less often than earlier. Of course, the arxiv gatekeepers allow this dross into hep-th, only relegating to gen-phys ideas that do not relate to beloved failed dogmas. Sniff.

Still, no one cares anymore. Forbes main physics guy, Ethan Siegel, recently published an article entitled: Why Are Scientists So Cruel To New Ideas? This is filled with carefully crafted hurdles over which novel ideas must leap if they are to be taken seriously. But …

You know how in the olympics pole vaulters have to vault over ever higher bars, and with each raise of the bar vaulters get eliminated, and how sometimes the bar is set so high that no one can achieve victory? Well, the failure of the LHC vaulter to provide unequivocal evidence of new physics beyond the Standard Model has doomed the mainstream’s coterie of young theoretical vaulters to face a bar so inconceivably high it is invisible. And the slew of erstwhile enthusiastic pop sci onlookers have become disenchanted with this particular enterprise and mostly drifted away.

In Ethan’s article there is a picture of Bohr and Einstein lounging contentedly while they discuss and debate ideas that will be testable in their lifetimes. This picture exemplifies the notion that dead physicists are the best, as is dead physics. But it has utterly nothing to do with the milieu in which young physicists find themselves, and especially the mavericks amongst that group.

What to do? How do you avoid the slow decline of rigor into an almost spiritual acceptance of whatever notions fit your fancy, and evidence be damned? Because – let’s face it – evidence in any historically conventional sense is hard to find anymore. Is there a viable alternative to experimentally based progress?

Well, in my oh so humble and self-effacing opinion (IMosHaSEO) there is a way of assigning potential value to new ideas. It’s not the first time I’ve suggested this, but here is my notion of rigor based on mathematics:
1. Start with mathematics, and at least convince yourself that your chosen mathematics is unavoidable, resonant, and special;
2. Make your work on this mathematics unassailable;
3. Make the interpretation of this work as a contextual foundation of some part of theoretical physics unavoidable, or as much so as possible;
4. Ignore your own biases and let the mathematics speak – follow it – do not lead it or push it.

You know, as an example of applied mathematics that irks me, at the core of much of quantum mechanics is the mathematical notion of Hilbert space. There are infinitely many Hilbert spaces, but surely infinitely many of those are physically irrelevant. The problem is, Hilbert space is not really a space, nor even a mathematical object; it is an abstract collection of properties from which spaces and mathematical objects can be constructed. It is an entirely too flexible tool that suited the needs of 20th century theorists (now mostly dead) trying to make sense of things quantum. Again, IMosHaSEO Nature is not that nonspecific nor flexible. Nature is in fact not at all nonspecific. If you require yourself to use a Hilbert space, pick one, damn it. And make your mathematical application of it unassailable; and blah blah blah. And you might want to base it on the parallelizable spheres … if you want it to have anything to do with the universe we live in.

And by the way, Hilbert is dead too – beatified, sure, but … Even in science we are prone to thinking religiously.

Number theory for complete beach puppies

Not only optimal, but intended.

Caveat: I’m lazy, so grains of salt should be on hand while reading this blog. Due diligence and researching precedents are not my fortes. I depend on google for that, but I do not always avail myself of its services. If you’ve read my previous blogs, then you’re likely already prepared.

Let’s recap. These are a few of my favorite mathematical things:

Ⓐ Primes numbers;

➁︎ Parallelizable spheres in dimensions 1,2,4,8;

Ⅲ︎ Pretty pretty laminated lattices in dimensions 1,2,8,24.

In this episode I want to discuss prime numbers, and how I perceive my thinking about primes differs from – well, this is unclear. Let’s just say I’ve not encountered views similar to those I’m about to extoll, but then, this is not my field. I am merely an enthusiastic dilettante, like a puppy at the beach.

So, I recently happened upon an article suggesting that mathematicians will never stop finding novel ways to prove the prime number theorem. Which is what? Well, if you plot π(n) (the number of primes less than or equal to n) vs n, the plot rises in a manner that looks like it may relate to ln(n). This gave rise to the following approximation:

π(n) ~ n / ln(n).

This is not a very good approximation. I don’t care if the step function π(n) and the smooth function [n / ln(n)] cross each other an infinite number of times (I don’t know that they do), if you look at the table here comparing these two functions, it is clear that Nature is largely uninterested in the correspondence. Still, the ratio of these two functions has been proven to converge to 1, and that is the prime number theorem, which, according to that aforementioned article, is a thing that mathematicians make a hobby of repeatedly proving. Never mind that they diverge in an arithmetic sense; but how about that ratio!

Still, better approximations abound. Maybe [1 / ln(x)] is the density of primes at x, in which case the integral of that from 2 to n, denoted Li(n), should be a good approximation to π(n). In fact, this is a better approximation, but while it is true that π(n) / Li(n) converges to 1, Li(n) does not at all behave like it is Nature’s intended smooth approximation to π(n).

Does Nature have intended smooth approximations to number theory step functions? Is this a thing? Yes, it is. Never mind how I know; just take my word for it.

Evidently Riemann found an exact form for π(n), which is discussed here. Riemann was there first for quite a bit of modern mathematics, and the zeros of his famous zeta function play a part in his exact form. As this involves the as yet unproven Riemann Hypothesis, I’m going to pretend Riemann never existed and carry on discussing π(n) from my own peculiar perspective.

Peculiar perspective

To begin with, there is a problem with the notion of just counting primes as they pop up. What you really want is a measure of prime occurrences. I mean, consider the integers from 1 to 10. There are 4 primes in that collection: 2, 3, 5, 7. But there are more occurrences of primes than just those primes. What I mean by that is this: the prime 2 occurs 3 times, because 2³ = 8 is less than 10. And the prime 3 occurs twice, because 3² = 9 is less than 10. But how do we measure that? In my puppy on a beach investigations I decided upon lcm(n) (least common multiple of the integers from 1 to n). So, for example, lcm(10) = 2³ x 3² x 5 x 7 = 2520.

If you plot lcm(n) it looks a lot like a step function version of en. Did you see? Therefore without a shadow of a doubt Nature’s intended smooth approximation to ln[lcm(n)] is a simple linear function:

ln[lcm(n)] ~ n-1.

Why subtract 1? Well, I did that to enforce equality at n = 1. Nature concurred.

Want another test? Well, if

lcm(n) ~ en-1,

then

[lcm(n)]1/(n-1) ~ e.

Plot that. Take your time.

Anyway, I will go to my grave (in the not too distant future, unfortunately) fully convinced that these smooth approximations of these number theory step functions are Nature’s intended approximations. And I just don’t understand why in all my beach puppy readings in number theory – back in my beach puppy days – I never encountered this sort of thing. I’m not the only person to have noticed this. If I ever write a book entitled Number Theory for Complete Beach Puppies, this lcm(n) stuff will form its core.

Well, so I used this Nature’s intended approximation to derive a really really good (Nature’s intended) approximation to π(n). And that’s my story. You’ll find that I will be sticking to it like a limpet on a rock.